Premier Gordon Campbell's version of the fast ferries gets even more expensive

This week, the premier's favourite former bureaucrat, Ken Dobell, leaked word of more convention-centre cost overruns to one of the premier's favourite reporters, Jeff Lee of the Vancouver Sun.

It was in advance of the upcoming budget, which will result in the province shovelling more money at Vancouver's new white elephant on the waterfront.

Leaking this information to Lee has its benefits: he didn't include government critics in the story, nor did he contact one of North America's most enlightened analysts of the convention-industry: U.S. academic Heywood Sanders.

(The Campbell government has also been regularly leaking stories to the Sun's Miro Cernetig, another of the premier's favourite media publicists.)

In January, 2005, Sanders wrote a paper for the Brookings Institution describing the rush to build convention centres as "a type of arms race".

He reported at the time that 44 U.S. cities were planning new or expanded facilities, even though the number of delegates at the 200 largest trade shows remains at 1993 levels.

In 2003, the minister in charge of the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre expansion, Rick Thorpe, told the Straight that it would not go over its $495-million budget.

Now, according to Lee's report in the Sun, the project will cost $800 million.

In February, 2005, the Straight interviewed Sanders to find out what he thought about Vancouver's convention-centre expansion.

The following is a portion of what appeared in our cover story on this issue:

Sanders said that after combing through 80 to 100 convention-centre feasibility studies, he has concluded that tourism operators aren't the major force driving investments in expansion projects. He claimed that the real behind-the-scenes promoters of convention centres are often major downtown property owners seeking massive public subsidies to their areas of the city.

In most cases, he said, these buildings turn into costly white elephants. "It has nothing to do with conventions," Sanders claimed. "It has to do with land."

One of the biggest boosters of the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre expansion has been Graeme Stamp, chairman of the Vancouver Board of Trade and executive vice-president of Fairmont Developments Inc. (formerly Marathon Developments Inc.). Stamp's company developed the nearby Coal Harbour lands and the Waterfront Centre hotel and office complex.

Marathon, which once employed Premier Gordon Campbell, also sold the land for the convention-centre expansion in 2003 to the provincial government for $27.5 million.

Stamp, a former chairman of Tourism Vancouver, did not respond to the Straight's request for an interview.

In many cities, including Vancouver, convention-centre expansions are partially financed through new taxes or levies. The owners of tourism-related businesses-restaurants, tourist attractions, taxicabs, hotels, and sometimes retail stores-are often required to fork over tens of millions of dollars to cover the construction costs.

The B.C. Liberal government quietly passed legislation last year enabling Tourism Vancouver to collect a "voluntary" levy from "tourist-related" businesses to raise $90 million toward the expansion of the convention and exhibition centre. The B.C. government and Tourism Vancouver won't work out the details until after the provincial election.